'Bhopal' fears after fire at SA chemical plant

Environmental campaigners are warning of a "South African Bhopal" in the wake of a fire at a chemical plant near Cape Town last December. Community activists claim that the company responsible - a subsidiary of Anglo American Corporation - is refusing to pay fair compensation to the victims of the disaster.

A stockpile of 14,000 tons of sulphur caught fire at AECI's Somerset West Factory on 16 December last year when a veldt-fire swept across the plant. The sulphur burned for 20 hours and the resulting sulphur dioxide cloud quickly reached Macassar, two miles away. Two people, both asthma sufferers, died. Between 2,500 and 3,500 people were evacuated four hours after the blaze began, but over the next few days thousands of Macassar's 30,000 population received treatment for respiratory problems.

The cloud of toxic gas was so thick that managers of Cape Town airport, 22km away, considered closing it down, and vineyards 15-20km away were damaged. Many people mistook the smoke for tear gas. One woman interviewed shortly after said: "I coughed until my chest hurt, I ran to the tap to wash my face but the smell was too strong to be tear gas."

According to the South African Environmental Justice Networking Forum, compensation payments from AECI have so far been "completely arbitrary and unfair". The group says claims assessors are offering most people between R250 and R500 (pounds 40-pounds 80) in payments. "There is no independent attempt to put a price on things. They are just offering people money, and because of the poverty and the need for immediate cash, people are taking it ... People are getting totally different pay-outs for the same damage," said a forum spokesman.

Members of the local community are angry that some farming families have received millions of rand in compensation and accused AECI of racism.

AECI says the average pay-out is R700 (pounds 113) and that so far 4,500 out of an expected 8,000 claims have been settled. These claims are mostly for damage to gardens, curtains and carpets - which became saturated in the smoke - and for goods stolen during the evacuation. AECI says the claims were not arbitrary and that different payouts reflected varying degrees of damage and loss. "It is very difficult to generalise when you are dealing with 8,000 claims but there is a pattern."

Another, more important, point of contention is over medical compensation. The community want assurances that all medical costs incurred so far and possible future costs will be paid, but no medical settlement has yet been offered. They want a clinic set up in the township to monitor the long-term effects.

This is the first time a large number of people have been exposed to sulphur dioxide fumes at such close quarters, so doctors have no way of judging what the long term consequences might be. The Justice Networking Forum says that asthma sufferers are already becoming ill and many previously healthy people are beginning to develop asthma-like illnesses. There are also fears for the unborn children of women exposed to the smoke.

AECI says it does not anticipate any problems payinghealth care cost but wants the results of its health study before agreeing a figure. Already the community is casting doubt on the study, saying its requests to be involved have been refused. "It is far too restrictive, the terms are entirely set by them," said a forum spokesman.

Without taking longer term health costs into account, AECI's insurers expect to payout R25m (pounds 4m) in immediate damage claims.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world